Students, parents and others on Monday asked Denver Public Schools to rethink closing five schools during a meeting that marked one of the last chances for the public to weigh in before the Board of Education votes later this week.
They filled the meeting room where a rope barrier separated the public and the directors. Many speakers asked the board to revoke a 2021 resolution that directs the superintendent to develop a plan to address low enrollment in schools.
The district’s youngest students — those who would be most impacted by the closures — spoke first during the meeting. They were also the littlest speakers, some too short to reach the lectern people used to address the board so they were handed microphones before they spoke.
“If I could not go to school here at Columbian (Elementary) anymore I would feel really sad,” said third-grader Cruz Lovato.
Last week, district leaders altered their plan by announcing they now are recommending closing five schools instead of 10. Columbian Elementary is one of the five schools removed from the list of schools recommended for closure.
The schools that the district is recommending closing are Denver Discovery School, Schmitt Elementary, Fairview Elementary, International Academy of Denver at Harrington, and Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.
The five schools removed from the list are Columbian Elementary, Palmer Elementary, Colfax Elementary, Whittier K-8 and Eagleton Elementary.
“I really like my school and I want to keep it open because it’s like family to us and it’s an awesome school and I feel loved and safe,” said Liam Suranowitz, a second-grader at Columbian.
Many of the speakers were from the schools the district removed from its recommendation list last week. Kris Rollerson, one of the speakers, said there weren’t many people in the audience representing Fairview Elementary because many of them are single parents.
“Fairview has always been a community school,” she told the board.
During the meeting, a speaker, Hashim Coates, asked for more time to speak to the board. He was asked to stop and then leave by the board president, but several people, including two directors – Auon’tai Anderson and Scott Esserman – surrounded Coates in support. He was then given more time to speak.
Families, education groups and school board members have criticized the district’s rollout of the plan, saying DPS didn’t seek enough community feedback and is rushing the potential closures. The plan itself has also come under scrutiny as it disproportionately affects students of color.
“There are so many ideas in this community on how to make these schools better,” Matt Smith, one of the speakers told the school board. “Engage with the communities. Communities know what they need.”
Smith added, “Don’t press the easy button to close schools.”
The board will vote on the plan on Thursday. At least two board members — Esserman and Anderson — have said they will vote against the revised plan. Another director, Michelle Quattlebaum, said earlier this month that she opposed the initial plan to close 10 schools; it’s unclear whether or not she will support the new plan.
“I believe what is going on currently is a performative show,” Anderson said during the meeting. “This is not how we should be governing with the community.”
Anderson sat with members of the public rather than his colleagues during the public comments portion of the meeting.
DPS leaders have said they need to shut down schools because of low enrollment, which the district says is the result of falling birthrates and rising housing costs that are pushing families from the city. The district has lost more than 6,400 elementary students since 2014 and expects enrollment to fall for the foreseeable future.
“We know there’s been a lot of uncertainty,” said Superintendent Alex Marrero. “Regardless of the ultimate outcome, we are prioritizing the needs of our students.”
Denver isn’t the only school district facing low enrollment — or considering closing schools. Statewide K-12 enrollment continues to drop, and urban districts across the U.S., are facing similar challenges.
Last week, the Board of Education overseeing Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest school district, voted to close 16 elementary schools. Next year, the district plans to announce which secondary schools should close.
The low-enrollment crisis is hitting schools financially as the amount of funding they receive is based on how many pupils they have. DPS has said it’s having to subsidize small schools, which are costing the district more money to operate.
For example, the median amount that DPS spends per pupil districtwide is $15,246. But that cost is higher — $22,248 per student — for the 10 schools initially recommended for closure.
Small schools have larger class sizes and fewer electives, such as art. Children from different grades are also sometimes merged into a single classroom and Spanish instruction is combined with classes taught in English, according to the district.
“It’s crazy how much the enrollment rates have decreased over the years,” said Deysi Silva, a parent of a student at International Academy at Denver at Harrington. “I hate to say it, it seems like all the lower class schools are the ones being affected.”
When DPS announced its initial plan on Oct. 25, the district used four sets of criteria to decide which schools should close, including a threshold of fewer than 215 students.
With the changes announced last week, the district is now proposing closing the smallest of the 10 schools on the list. DPS officials haven’t said why they changed their plan beyond saying that those five schools also receive the majority of the $5 million the district provides to subsidize the original 10 schools, according to the district.
While DPS has removed the other five schools from its list, it hasn’t ruled out closing them. Those schools “are still under consideration and will continue to be supported as we more closely engage with those respective communities,” according to a letter Marrero sent parents.